Strengthening a Passion Abroad

A summer service-learning opportunity provided junior Sarah Bendekovits with the perfect blend of international travel and volunteer work. “Service learning is like an internship with reflection. I love to volunteer, so this was perfect for me.”

Bendekovits’ summer plans came into focus after she attended a study abroad fair on campus last year. The psychology major, who minors in disability studies, has volunteered with the Miracle League of the Lehigh Valley since she was twelve. Finding an educational opportunity that combined her desire to travel abroad with her longtime passion for volunteering was a win-win.

During the application process, she had to choose the top three organizations for which she’d like to volunteer. She knew she was headed to Ireland, but found out last minute she received her first-choice organization, the Galway Autism Partnership.

“Some people hate working with kids with autism, but I love it. The kids are so good to work with,” she said.

Bendekovits headed to the National University of Ireland in Galway and said she immediately felt comfortable with the other students in her suite. For each summer camp, she and her roommate were tasked with planning field trips and activities for different age groups.

At first, it was a challenge to plan activities for people they hadn’t met in a place they didn’t know, she said. She worked with her roommate when planning activities to identify the interests, fears, and goals of the people attending each camp based on their applications. They also quickly discovered the culture was much more relaxed and less structured than camps and activities back home.

“We learned to go with the flow.”

In Ireland, Bendekovits found that fewer programs existed to support children with autism and their families. Each camp included about ten children, and new children started every week. She implemented camp activities Monday through Friday from about 10:00am to 1:00pm, then planned for the next program until about 5:00pm each day.

“At the Miracle League, the challenge there was communication—some children were deaf, some had muscle issues, some arthritis. But I never had a kid throw a temper tantrum,” she said. “In Ireland, we’d do a craft, play outside, watch a movie and, for some kids, everything was ‘No!’ Some needed a push, then liked the activity.”

Bendekovits and her roommate developed different ways to work with children who found it hard to communicate or who showed aggression. The camp had a sensory room that was quiet, and some children preferred to stay there all day. Other children responded to positive reinforcement. For example when they faced challenging situations with one girl, she responded well to chocolate.

“You have to have so much patience. It could take thirty minutes to get a kid in a taxi,” she said.

“For parents, this is a full-time job for them that’s stressful. ...To see their kid count to ten one day would make parents so happy. They didn’t know what to expect.”

Many of the skills Bendekovits applied came directly from what she had learned in class. For example, she developed several art therapy projects, such as discussing how color can express feeling. One of the courses she took at Ship called Exceptional Child looked at the symptoms of different disorders, which better prepared her to develop therapy methods that addressed specific needs.

“I was able to apply the things I learned in the classroom,” she said. “If I were to graduate without an experience like this, I’m not sure I’d be ready for the workforce.”

Outside of camp, Bendekovits and her roommates had plenty of time to sightsee, hitting most of Ireland, Iceland, Amsterdam, and London. She appreciated the ease of public transportation and enjoyed the different cuisines.

The experience was all that she’d hoped it would be—she received six credits for class, earned almost 300 volunteer hours, and took her first trip abroad. She returned home inspired to get more involved on campus through events like the Special Olympics and a big buddy program at the Grace B. Luhrs University Elementary School.

“It was hard to come back because I developed such good relationships with the kids. Being in an atmosphere where I was applying what I learned and then coming back to sitting in a classroom can be hard.”

The trip helped her focus on what she’d like to do after graduation. Bendekovits plans to attend graduate school, then work with children with autism as a child life specialist. “I’d like to work with families and kids and help them to cope with these challenges.”